The Frustration with Innovation: Bright Shiny Object Syndrome and its effect on the nonprofit sector


Chicago_Bean_2_by_lightzoneOne of the great things about our sector is how innovative it is. There are smart, talented, socially-conscious people—nonprofit staff, funders, researchers, boards, donors, volunteers. We come up with amazing ideas all the time. In the past few years we’ve had 40 Developmental Assets, and 21st Century Skills. We’ve had evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence. We have strategic planning, then strategic thinking. We have Collective Impact and Youth Program Quality Initiative. We have STEM. We have online learning. Some trends, like the importance of parental engagement in students’ academic performance, die and then resurface. I call them “Zombie Trends.” Now the latest trend is “We need to send more nonprofit staff to Hawaii so they can relax and recharge!”

All right, fine, that last one may not be an actual trend, though maybe it should be.

Lately, however, I’ve been encountering among my peers more and more frustration with funders’ seeming obsession with innovation. An ED friend called it the Bright Shiny Object Syndrome (BSOS), this apparent inclination to drop everything and zoom in on the newest, sexiest concept to support, with sometimes negative consequences. The focus on early learning, for example, while important, has affected funding for youth programs, and the shift to collective impact has not always been positive (see “Collective Impact: Resistance is futile“).

Look, innovation is great, and lots of new models and practices in our field are awesome. We should always be trying out new concepts and shifting paradigms and harvesting synergy and stuff. The frustration comes when it seems like some funders (and even nonprofits) are seeking a magic bullet, a panacea, a Holy Grail, a McRib to all of society’s problems, and they follow this quest at cost of good programs and organizations. A program officer, for example, once told me his influential foundation was no longer funding direct service programs in order to focus more on systems work, and thus would not be able to support my nonprofit’s proven after-school program that serves low-income kids, though they had supported similar programs in the past. This was one of the few times I went back to my office and broke into the emergency minibar in my cubicle.

At some point innovation becomes like the hundreds of weight-loss fads we have had: The grapefruit diet, the watermelon diet, the cavemen diet, the lemonade diet, the blood type diet, the hCG hormone diet, the Atkins diet, the cotton ball diet, the apple cider vinegar diet, the baby food diet, etc. Every week there’s some new diet. Our society’s unrealistic expectations of body image is a topic for another day. The point here is that many people are trying to lose weight, and many are resorting to some ridiculous and occasionally harmful “innovations.” Some may succeed with these crazy diets, but the majority fail, because when it comes to healthy body weight, it comes down to two factors: sensible eating and exercise. It may be unfair to parallel innovations in the nonprofit sector with ridiculous dieting fads, but that is often what it feels like to us on the ground.

While we must continue to seek innovation, we cannot ignore these critical factors below. These unsexy, overlooked critical factors. They are the “sensible eating and exercise” of social justice and we will always have a need for them:

    • Direct service programming. It would be really great if the nonprofit sector is not needed. All of us would then go pursue our dreams of being a wedding photographer or chef or the first vegan American Ninja Warrior or something. But the sad reality is that direct services will ALWAYS be needed. ALWAYS! Changing systems and policies and stuff, that’s critical, but individual lives are at stake every day and we must do macro-level stuff simultaneously with, not in lieu of, direct programs. People who think we are wasting time with direct service programs, that they are just Band-Aid solutions, and that we must choose policies and systems over direct service are delusional.
    • Existing, proven programs. It is very frustrating when funders only want to fund new programs. Many of us are struggling to comprehend the reason behind this. This is totally BSOS. Programs that have been around for a while are not as sexy, true. But it takes time for a program to reach a level of quality and effectiveness, and now you don’t want to fund them. And what irks many of us is that most of these funders are simultaneously asking about sustainability (See “The Sustainability Question: Why it is so annoying.”) We need support for new as well as existing programs.
    • Capacity building: There are few things that are as unsexy as “capacity building.” The term lately has been generating groans and eye-rolling. Capacity building is the “exercise” in the social justice weight-loss plan, if you know what I mean. But it is essential. Organizations and programs need strong infrastructure to support them or they will suck or disappear. There are so many things we are expected to do—diversify funding, increase sustainability, retain staff, evaluate programs, etc., all these things that fall under capacity building—and yet few funders/donors actually want to pay for them.
    • Nonprofit professionals: We hear of major corporations investing in high-school or even elementary and middle school students, focusing on STEM education, guiding many of these kids to grow up to be engineers and scientists. And we have TV shows guiding them to become attractive and promiscuous doctors and lawyers. How much investment goes into developing nonprofit professionals? I don’t have any figures, but I would venture that it is substantially less. It is PEOPLE who are doing work, not nonprofit elves. We are dealing with society’s most entrenched and complicated problems, like poverty and homelessness and education disparity and domestic violence. We cannot just hope that smart and talented people will magically enter the field. Those of us who are in the field, meanwhile, need support and professional development to keep us in the field.
    • Leadership: Nonprofit leaders are burning out like shooting stars (“Look, Timmy, another ED just left her position. Make a wish!”) Yet so little support is provided for leadership skills development, including self-care and renewal. The next-in-line staff see the toll that the work takes on EDs and CEOs and it makes many of them want to stay far away. We must invest more to develop and sustain leaders in our field. BSOS is probably one of the factors that lead to burnout among leaders.  
    • Volunteer management. Does any other sector leverage as much in terms of volunteer time and talents? A friend told me that about every 2000 hours of volunteer time collected is basically the equivalent of one full-time staff. With the nonprofit funding structure being so unstable and unpredictable, we must all rely on dedicated volunteers. This will not go away anytime soon. Yet how many organizations have paid volunteer managers or a budget to sustain volunteers? This is an underappreciated and overlooked area that we need to pay more attention to.

shinyWhat other things am I missing? These factors above are not “innovative” and cutting edge. Like a balanced diet and regular exercise, they are not new and sexy. But they are what are driving the work, and they need to be appreciated and supported. While we should continue to explore and try new things and change the way we do stuff from time to time, these essential factors are not going to be obsolete anytime soon. If anything, they will continue to be more and more important as our society and world become more populated and complex. They must be funded simultaneously and consistently. 

As a final note, we all need to appreciate the funders who do understand the importance of supporting these nonsexy elements of our work. This week call or email your funders who are funding general operating, capacity building, leadership, volunteer management, staff development, tried-and-true programming, or other boring, non-innovative stuff and thank them. Chances are, they don’t hear enough of that (See “General operating funds, admin expenses, and why we nonprofits are our own worst enemies.”)